03/19/2012 10:03 EDT | Updated 05/19/2012 05:12 EDT

Advocates say Vancouver police rules for sex trade will hold officers to account

VANCOUVER - Police officers working the beat in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside could soon have a new set of rules for dealing with sex workers, making prostitutes' safety their first priority and considering criminal charges only as a last resort.

The proposed guidelines, which will be considered by the city's police board Wednesday, have prompted optimism among advocates in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. They hope the new rules improve the relationships between the force and sex workers and offer a way to hold officers to account when they fall short.

A draft of the guidelines, written by Deputy Chief Warren Lemcke, acknowledges sex workers have traditionally distrusted the police, and it says that poor relationship has made women working the streets reluctant to come forward when they've been assaulted or abused.

The document says the force must focus on treating sex workers with dignity and respect, treat all cases of violence against sex workers as serious criminal offences, and work with special units within the force and community groups in all cases involving prostitutes.

"Sex work involving consenting adults is not an enforcement priority for the (Vancouver Police Department)," Lemcke writes.

"The VPD does not seek to increase the inherent dangers faced by sex workers, especially survival sex workers. Therefore, where there are nuisance related complaints against survival sex workers, alternative measures and assistance must be considered with enforcement a last resort."

The document says criminal enforcement should be restricted to "high-risk" cases involving violence, human trafficking and children.

The department has faced intense criticism for its treatment of sex workers at the ongoing missing women inquiry, which is examining why the police failed to catch serial killer Robert Pickton as he murdered sex workers in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

The inquiry has heard evidence that officers working in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside routinely harassed sex workers, sexually assaulted them, arrested them for outstanding warrants if they attempted to report violence, and took them on "starlight tours," in which sex workers were driven across town and forced to walk back.

The inquiry has also heard the Vancouver police force's insistence that things have changed. The department has a dedicated sex worker liaison officer and it created a program known as Sister Watch, which aims to combat violence against women living in the Downtown Eastside.

Ernie Crey, whose sister Dawn's DNA was found on Pickton's farm, said officers shouldn't need to be told to treat sex workers with respect. Crey said the force already has its own code of conduct and follows a provincial code of ethics for police forces.

"All along, I assumed the code of conduct and code of ethics applied to the police officers when they were dealing with sex workers," said Crey.

"While I would encourage them to move along with these new guidelines, I just hope that after they adopt them, they really do it this time. I hope this is more than a public relations exercise."

The department no longer uses prostitution laws to aggressively target sex workers. The force says just three women have been arrested and charged with communicating for the purpose of prostitution since 2007. Charges were stayed in two of those cases, and the third ended in a conditional discharge.

But those statistics hide the reality that many women are still reluctant to report violence to the police, particularly if they have other legal problems, said Kate Gibson of WISH, a drop-in centre for sex workers in the Downtown Eastside.

"They might not be enforcing the laws, but if a sex worker has a warrant, that's a barrier for them to work with the police," said Gibson, whose group was consulted as the Vancouver police drafted the proposed guidelines.

"What hopefully will come is that when somebody makes a complaint, let's hope the first thing to happen isn't, 'Let's talk about your warrant.' The first thing has to be, 'What happened to you?'"

Katrina Pacey of Pivot Legal Society, who also helped draft the guidelines, agreed the force has made positive changes in recent years, but she said it's been slow. That change also hasn't spread across the entire force, she said, with some sex workers still reporting harassment from police.

Still, Pacey said the policy will help ensure sex workers know their rights, and she hopes it will make it easier to punish officers don't respect those rights.

"At the end of the day, sex workers on the street level don't know what the current policy is, they don't know what police officers' intentions are, so it's left up very much to the discretion of individual officers," said Pacey.

"What we're glad to have is something that we can educate sex workers on, and we can hold the police to account now. We can hold up this policy and measure police conduct against that. I think it's more than PR."